By Jon Hogan
Dir. Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, U.S., Oscilloscope Laboratories
Padded asylum walls encircle a group of teenage girls sprawled across a floor. One of them, a blonde, springs to her feet and sways to the ambient R&B strains of singer-songwriter How to Dress Well, who croons yards away. As her fellow inmates rise, arms appear between cracks in the walls and pull the newly risen out of view. While the performance taking place on the other side of those walls represents almost a year of preparation, practice, and commitment on the part of the troupe’s over 25 members, the camera is briefly more fascinated by one of these captives sitting and catching her breath, bathed in the same light illuminating the nearby physical spectacle.
This sequence is characteristic of the wandering focus of documentary filmmakers Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV in Contemporary Color, their collaboration with David Byrne. The project chronicles a summer 2015 night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center when live music from such artists as Byrne, St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, Ad-Rock, and Devonté Hynes accompanied ten color guard teams (described by Byrne in promotional materials as “high school [and college-level] ‘dance’ groups who perform during half time at football games, and then compete amongst themselves later in the school year”) from across the United States and Canada. Conceiving this project after giving a guard team permission to use his music in 2008, Byrne enlisted the Ross brothers, with their actively observant style, to document this evening, melding two art forms into a new type of performance. If you hope to see comprehensive depictions of intricate choreography, you’ve come to the wrong documentary. Instead the Ross brothers seek to convey the feeling of existing in a particular time and a place by showcasing both key moments of the story at hand and quieter moments in the peripheries, a technique that they used in their previous film, 2015’s Western, to follow life along the U.S./Mexico border.
The camera constantly moves, zooming and panning to focus on whatever action is most captivating at the moment, and there are often many options. When it’s stationary, it stays low to the ground and points upward, obscuring marchers’ bodies but offering a prime view of the flags, wooden rifles, and sabers they twirl above their heads. The Ross brothers often leave the stage altogether in the middle of routines, focusing on other squadrons preparing in the wings or following stagehands as they ensure that everything runs smoothly. Contemporary Color is more about the overall sensation of the event itself than its individual parts.
Splitting time between onstage and backstage antics allows the Rosses to incorporate recurring characters. At one point, a young marcher discusses the pain of her father’s recent passing. Later on, the camera goes out of its way to find her in the crowd. When she is offstage, the Rosses follow her and some teammates through a stairwell and up to the venue’s catwalks, where they spy another group’s routine from on high. This narrative structure—repeated several times with other participants—gives the audience characters to engage in a genre where the focus on music often makes that difficult.
These marchers’ troupe—Alter Ego, from Trumbull, Connecticut—has the best set of the evening. The musical backdrop features dreamy strings and synthesizers from composer Nico Muhly with words from This American Life host Ira Glass. Before the performance, Glass queried the performers about their experiences of the production, and these interviews play as they dance. This concept creates a thrilling effect where Alter Ego narrates its choreography movement by movement. We hear a male marcher say, “I start the show with a double-turn six-rotation toss,” as we see him fling a white rifle high into the air, snatching it at the bottom of its descent and seamlessly twirling it around his body. Voices keep time over the stadium’s speakers by counting along with their bodies’ fluid movements. Glass illustrates the strongest notion of why marchers flock to color guard: the thrill of the moment and the high of performing. Explaining how the competition can move those competing, a troupe member says, “If you watch a couple shows on the DVDs, you actually hear the people crying louder than the soundtrack. Because you just worked for this for so long.”
Between the set pieces, we witness footage of interviews with parents, Glass and Muhly observing a live color guard set, and the musicians speaking in admiration of the young marchers. The viewer sees these interludes, recorded before the performance, as videos on the venue’s humungous screens watched by attendees. (Audience members and roadies casually walk between the camera and the screens in these shots, an attempt to heighten the feeling of being present that at times simply distracts, frustrating the viewer’s patience.)
At one point, Byrne gets lost in the labyrinthine gray corridors of the Barclays Center, and announces, “I did something wrong, I think.” Since this is the first time the dance and music elements were brought together in front of a life audience, the possibility of failure is constantly present. Similarly, using their more prosaic style to document such an active evening with lots of moving parts could have backfired for the Rosses, missing the spectacle. However, by giving screen time to under-recognized but essential backstage elements—which also include pep talks, expressions of friendship, and even the efforts of camera operators to record every detail—the brothers create a concert film that grounds the audience in the event as a whole, inundating them with the sights and sounds of the Barclays Center on that one night in June. With its viewer immersion, Contemporary Color opens up the possibilities of the concert film in a way that should serve as a guide to other concert filmmakers, who can use the Ross brothers' method of casual-but-comprehensive observation to do more than simply record performances for a mass audience. By offering an array of spectacle and narrative, the siblings encourage the individual to curate his or her own understanding of the evening.